I live in Washington. That means I am required to write something about the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner activities, even though you couldn’t care less. Again this year, I didn’t attend any of them. Why? Part of it is because I wasn’t invited. I’ve become an inside-the-beltway outsider. Forget A-list and B-listers — you’d have to go through the entire alphabet before my name would come up. So, thank you very much, I spent the time at home with my dog, which, as you know, is totally appropriate here.
I used to go to all the pre and post parties as well as the big dinner itself. Talk about country come to town, with the women replacing their usual drab fashions with lovely gowns, and the guys all decked out by the thousands in tuxedos, a la “March of the Penguins.” To be honest, I would go again if asked by either someone whose company I genuinely enjoyed, or a person to whom I really needed to suck up. I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m totally above it all. But, for the most part, the events are wearisome.
First of all, the sincerity would require nearly a molecule to hold. There’s genuineness by the quarkload. What would you expect from a combination of those who flutter in and around our nation’s capital, and a large number of Hollywood celebs whose image managers have told them it’s a good place to be seen, rubbing elbows with the stars of news? What you end up with is showbiz groupies and political groupies staring at each other. It’s kind of embarrassing, and that’s coming from someone in a profession that has mighty low standards when it comes to embarrassment.
Worse is the premise of all this, which is that it’s an opportunity for the news media people and newsmakers to come together and schmooze, showing, I surmise, that we’re all in this together.
No, we’re not. Or we shouldn’t be. Reporters and reportees are supposed to be adversaries. We’re not supposed to like each other, and we also are not supposed to give a hoot who hates us. What we get with all the parties is a pretend camaraderie. President Barack Obama has a well-known contempt for the mindless riffraff in the press, just like practically every one of his predecessors. And he took few prisoners with his traditional roast at the dinner, tossing barbs at all three cable networks — pointing out, for instance, that he had just returned from Malaysia: “The lengths we have to go to get CNN coverage these days.” But as always, he ended with a platitude about the important work we do. Everyone laughs, everyone claps.
I will be the first to acknowledge that some of those I cover are personal friends — none of them a president, I might add. The deal is that our relationship extends only to the next story, and if he or she doesn’t like that I aggressively try to challenge their story’s spin, the friendship is over. That’s happened, but others are willing to see past professional shoving matches.
Nevertheless, putting on this big show simply reinforces the view that D.C. is just an incestuous swamp. Add to that the fact that half the seats at the big dinner are taken not by journalists and their sources, but by salespeople and their clients, and corporate biggies from the media conglomerates who think it’s cool to mingle with their serfs. Altogether it is always a night of self-congratulation, which Obama captured when he introduced the night’s other comedian, Joel McHale, from the NBC series “Community.” “On ‘Community,’” said the president, “Joel plays a preening, self-obsessed narcissist, so this dinner must be a real change of pace for you.” Nervous laughter.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.